By Gerald Peary
All in all, Color Out of Space is only OK.
Color Out of Space, directed by Richard Stanley. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
I’m used to Canada standing in for New England in so many movies, but Portugal?
When it came time to find a creepy woodsy setting for an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tale “The Colour Out of Space,” co-writer and director Richard Stanley made a savvy decision, and probably an economical one, moving his film abroad and utilizing a Portuguese crew. His location scouts found a suitable spot for this rural-set drama which is supposed to take place just west of the mythic town of Arkham, somewhere between Providence and Boston, Lovecraft’s shivery locale for many of his weird, surreal 1930s stories.
Stanley brought along to Portugal some requisite name actors who probably were affordable: Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson as a peculiar couple, Nathan and Theresa Gardner, living with their three kids in an inherited home in the forest; Tommy Chong as an eccentric old coot, Ezra, who resides nearby in a broken-down, one-room domicile; and up-and-coming TV starlet Madeline Arthur, who, as the Gardner’s cute, short-shorts-wearing daughter Lavinia, proves some un-Lovecraft-like erotic interest.
There’s no Lavinia in the Lovecraft tale. As critic Bernice Wakefield wrote in 2017 of the Providence-based author, “Lovecraft seemed to try and ignore women and sex entirely within his works, regardless of the storyline…. despite his short marriage to Sonia Greene he suffered from both a fear of sex and a fear of women.” But what would have pained Lovecraft even more than adding a sexy gal to his story is that Lavinia is clearly attracted to a black young man. He’s a hydrologist, Ward (Britain’s Elliot Knight), surveying the region for a hydroelectric company.
Miscegenation! Egads! Lovecraft was a virulent racist, and a flirtation between a white woman and a black man would never happen in his fantasy universe. He was a rabid anti-Semite also, and wouldn’t it have been jolly if the filmmakers, subverting their source material, had made the Gardners into the Goldbergs? A Jewish family at the center of the tale!
So what is the narrative? As in Lovecraft, a meteorite from outer space lands in the environs of the unlucky Gardner family. It’s a malevolent invader of an ungodly, indescribable hue, and soon the grounds around their home are polluted, the drinking water is poisonous, the fruit grown on the land is rancid to the taste, and the animals who have been domesticated there — in the case of the movie, alpacas –transform into feral, bloodthirsty beasts. In the middle of the estate is a well, and what’s whirling about at the bottom seems the locus of whatever is causing the havoc. Warning: don’t climb into the well for a closer peek!
Inevitably, the infestation spreads to the humans. It’s the Gardners who, one by one, descend into lunacy. Their psyches unleashed, the family unravels, showing a primal desire to destroy and be destroyed.
My guess is that a youthful audience will choose The Color Out of Space not because they adulate the oeuvre of H.P. Lovecraft. They wish to see Nicolas Cage do his patented unhinged thing, the way moviegoers delighted at Vincent Price’s gonzo histrionics in ’60s Roger Corman horror flicks. It takes a while here for Cage to unwind, as he’s fairly sedate and professorial behind geeky glasses, a father caring for his family, even cooking for them a lavish cassoulet. But gradually he goes characteristically bonkers, screaming at his beloved daughter to “get the fuck out of my sight,” and having a colossal mad-scene meltdown in the driver’s seat of his stalled car: “Start, you cocksucker, start!” And who can deny the fun when he dramatically puts a gun to his wife’s head, pondering a mercy killing after her body has been decimated and electro-shocked by the insidious force from outer space?
All in all, The Color Out of Space is only OK. Most of the scares are fairly pedestrian, never matching the claustrophobic intensity and delirium of the original story, where the natural world becomes truly daemonic, where trees are “twitching morbidly and spasmodically in convulsive and epileptic madness.” Lovecraft was an unrepentant white supremacist. He is also the only legitimate heir to Poe’s fever-dream, tales-of-terror legacy, the writer Stephen King correctly hailed as “the Twentieth Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.